S. African Miner Protest Shows Deep Conflicts

The police shooting of strikers reveals how money and power divide the country.

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Many residents still didn't know days later where their friends and relatives were -- dead, in the hospital or among the more than 250 people arrested and facing charges ranging from destruction of property to murder. Daniel Modisenyane, 54, said he was "shocked" by the violence. He also said he believes police misconstrued miners' rudimentary weapons as more of a threat than they were.

"Culturally speaking, some of us, you have various language groups and you have various ethnic groups, other cultures, they hold their knobkerrie, their [stick], whatever, like what is happening in [Afghanistan]," he told The Root. "In [Afghanistan], people are carrying long guns, you know, that is cultural. When something comes, well, you cannot be empty-handed, as you know. Not that I condone what has happened."

"[South Africa] needs a militant union," Malema tweeted. "Not one that holds shares in mines and eats buffets with bosses." The intensity of this strike recalls the last major large-scale action by miners in South Africa, which happened in 1987 when National Union of Mineworkers founder Cyril Ramaphosa led more than 300,000 black workers in a protest of poor working conditions and low pay. In the violence that ensued, some 50,000 workers were fired, 11 were killed and 400 were jailed.

Today Ramaphosa sits on the Lonmin board and is part of the country's super rich. For example, he recently bid nearly $2.3 million for a cow at a glitzy auction of South African mining bosses and glitterati. Black miners, however, still persist on low wages.

Even in 1987, white miners earned more in adjusted income relative to their black counterparts today. Back then they earned at least $750 a month. In 2012 that would be worth about $1,500. That's almost exactly what the Lonmin strikers were asking to be paid. It's also just enough to buy 1 ounce of platinum at today's market price of about $1,500.

But for some workers, like Siphiwo, the crisis is no longer just about money. He said he will not return to work and will look for another job if he loses this one. To do otherwise, he said, "means that my brothers died for nothing."

Anita Powell is a Johannesburg-based journalist who has covered Africa for five years and Iraq and Afghanistan previously. Follow her on Twitter.

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